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How to look after yourself while looking after others

A group talking about self-care

Are you a new unpaid carer or have you been caring for someone for a while? Supporting someone you love can be very rewarding but, over time, it may become physically and mentally exhausting.

Whether they have a long-term condition or are struggling with their mental health, it’s important that you make time for yourself – especially if you still work or have other responsibilities.

Who is a carer?

A carer is someone who provides care and support to a family member or friend who has a disability, mental or physical illness, an addiction, or who needs extra help as they grow frailer and older.

For some, caring responsibilities can grow gradually over time from a couple of hours per week to a full-time commitment. For example, maybe your partner's mental or physical health gradually worsens, or your parents can no longer manage on their own. In these circumstances you may feel that you have to step in to offer support.

How many carers are there in the UK?

Up and down the UK there are millions of people providing unpaid care for an ill, frail, or disabled family member or friend. While these people are called ‘carers’, they would probably say they are just being a husband, a wife, a partner, a mum, a dad, a son, a daughter, friend, or neighbour.

The most recent Census which took place in 2021 put the estimated number of unpaid carers at five million in England and Wales. This, together with the ONS Census data for Scotland and Northern Ireland, suggested that the number of unpaid carers across the UK is 5.7 million.

Further research carried out by Carers UK in 2022 estimates the number of unpaid carers could be as high as 10.6 million (Carers UK, Carers Week 2022 research report).

4.7% of the population in England and Wales are providing 20 hours or more of care a week and one in seven carers in the UK are juggling work and care (Carers UK, Juggling Work and Care, 2019).

What impact can caring have on your health?

When you’re so focused on your loved one, you may forget to look after yourself. If you’re a female carer, you may be experiencing your own health issues, including post-partum depression or menopause. If you’re a male partner, you may be going through mental and physical conditions which affect your day-to-day life.

Caring can be a constant juggling act, sometimes with little rest. You may feel incredibly isolated or lonely, and it can have a significant impact on your health and wellbeing. Worryingly, 60% of carers report a long-term health condition or disability compared to 50% non-carers (Carers UK analysis of GP Patient Survey 2021). This can include:

  • Feeling constantly overwhelmed, sad, worried, guilty, or angry
  • Feeling tired or lacking energy
  • Losing interest in your hobbies, friends, and work
  • Sleeping too much or not enough
  • Losing or gaining weight
  • Health issues such as headaches or migraine
  • Over- or undereating, excessive drinking, increased smoking or taking more medications

How to deal with stress

Ask for help

The first step is to ask for – and accept – help. This could include asking someone to run errands for you, stay with the person you’re caring for while you take time for yourself, providing at-home care or simply lending an ear.

If friends and family are unable to help, consider speaking to your GP or other health professional. This is especially helpful if you don’t know much about your loved one’s condition, symptoms or what to expect in the future. Your local council may be able to advise on how to access personal care or how to navigate the mental health system.

Many communities and charities have support groups for partners, family, and friends – this may be online or offline – where people in a similar situation can offer friendship, advice, and coping strategies.

Be realistic about what support you can offer your loved one. It’s okay to set boundaries and communicate what you can and can’t do. If they resist or get angry, don’t be afraid to get their friends and other family members involved. This will give you both a break and might even offer them a new perspective.

Speak to your employer about flexible working

If you need time off work to take your loved one to a medical appointment or to cover childcare, you should speak to your employer. Most companies have policies around flexible working and how to ask for time off in an emergency. Carers UK have created a guide to your rights as a working carer.

Have a financial health check

If your situation means you’re the main earner, and you need help with budgeting and looking after finances, your local Citizen’s Advice Bureau or Age UK can provide practical advice and financial support, plus information on how to access Carer’s Allowance if you need additional income.

Find time for yourself

You’ve probably heard about the importance of fixing your own oxygen mask first when on a plane – this can be applied to your everyday life too. Ensuring that you’re fit and well both mentally and physically will make supporting your loved one easier.

Whether that’s completing a personal project, taking up a new sport or seeing your own friends and family, it’s important to make sure that your needs are being met.

If you’re a caregiver, your community may be able to offer respite care either at-home, in an adult care centre or a short-term nursing home. Taking a break can be one of the best things you can do for yourself – and for them.

Practical support for carers

If you need practical help for day-to-day tasks, charities such as Carer’s Trust, Carers UK and the Royal Voluntary Service offer a variety of support services.

Mind has created a helpful guide to managing your own wellbeing while caring for someone else.

Our Private GPs can also discuss any concerns you have about your mental or physical health, including stress and anxiety. Book your 25-minute appointment today.

Published on 29 August 2023